Any regular readers of Bookwi.se probably know that I started a graduate certificate program in Spiritual Direction last fall. I intentionally chose to do my training with a Catholic university because I wanted to challenge my blind spots. Most of the books we are assigned are by Catholic authors, and I often pick up a book by a Protestant author to read in conversation. Because I have previously read All That’s Good, I knew it would be helpful to read with Weeds Among the Wheat by Thomas Green. Both books are about developing or teaching discernment, but they approach the topic very differently, and the tension between that difference was constructive.
All That’s Good is the third book in a trilogy of books about discipleship. Weeds Among the Wheat is a manual for Spiritual Directors to teach and partner with their directees in discernment. For the average person, I would recommend All That’s Good as the better book to read, both because it is targeted at a more general reader and because it is full of stories and illustrations that are more applicable for the average person.
I think what is most helpful about All That’s Good is that 1) Anderson views discernment as a practice to be developed, 2) that for judgment to be fruitful, we need to know not just what is wrong, but even more important, what is right, and 3) that the tough thing about discernment is that often we are choosing not between what is right and wrong but from a range of things that are themselves are good, but attempting to find what is best right now.
Both Anderson and Green approach developing discernment as an essential part of developing maturity. Anderson talks about helping her children learn to shop, not based on impulse, but a range of issues including need, quality, goodness, etc.. Green draws on Paul’s illustration in I Cor 3 of trying to move people toward solid food and away from milk. And Anderson says, “In other words, you develop discernment by becoming a person who knows how, not simply what, to think.” Both authors view discernment as moving from simple rules toward a more mature and nuanced understanding of ethics and discipleship.
Largely, All That’s Good is a meditation on Philippians 4: 6-8 with a chapter each on the qualities in verse 8. (Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.) Discernment for Anderson is both the big and small things, from what you purchase to what job I should take. I appreciate that she emphasizes that we learn how to discern big things by practicing discerning small things.
Where Weeds Among Wheat has a different tack, it primarily talks about big issues of discernment and that knowing God is the central issue to rightly discerning. He has a central metaphor, picking out a necktie. Neckties are not moral decisions, but decisions of taste. The way to pick out the right necktie is not about the tie itself, or your taste, but of knowing the person that you are choosing the necktie for. The more in-depth knowledge and experience of the person, the more we understand not just what is right but what is suitable for the person.
Anderson spends much of the book talking about developing a real understanding of what is true, noble, right, and pure so that we can learn discernment and be able to choose those things well. Where Anderson spends a bit less time (although she does spend some) is on developing these among communities not just individuals. It is one of the gifts of more episcopal or presbyterian traditions that make communal discernment a more central practice.
In 2020, I think we need to think more clearly about our public discernment. One of the quotes by Anderson that gets at this is, “Ultimately, utilitarianism becomes a threat to discernment when it teaches us to evaluate what is good and bad by earthly definitions of value. And when this happens, our churches become finely oiled machines with little room for beauty; our public witness is reduced to pragmatic political agendas; and our interpersonal relationships means to ends.” This quote is in a section that talks about the ability to receive hard truths as a community. A community that cannot hear dissenting opinion is a community that cannot be discerning.
While much of the book is rooted in developing the art of discernment among all people, there are times when we need people that are specially gifted to pull a community back to where it needs to be. So we need to be developing both the art of discernment among all people and developing the few members that seem uniquely gifted. I do not particularly think I am spiritually gifted in discernment, but I do understand her point when she shares a quick story:
I can remember distinct times of being frustrated with people who couldn’t see what was so obvious to me. Why can’t they understand what’s happening? Why can’t they see that she’s manipulating them with her smiles and niceties? What will it take for them to recognize that he’s teaching falsehood? At one point, Nathan, tired of my angst, turned to me and said: “Hannah, if you actually have the gift of discernment, then you can’t expect other people to have it too. You can’t expect them to be who God has made you to be.” Here’s the hard truth: If you are entrusted with a certain gift, most of the people around you won’t be similarly gifted. They won’t be able to see as clearly because God has not equipped them to. But being gifted with discernment does not give you permission to be spiteful, arrogant, or judgmental toward them.
As a culture, we are individualistically oriented. And so it is easy for discussion of discernment to be individualistic, especially because both authors rightly point out that discernment is a part of a maturing process. However, the focus of Green’s work is to be a “Co-discerner…of the call of the Holy Spirit speaking within them.” Learning both how to trust in discernment and vulnerably how to trust others in the art of discerning together is a skill that we need to be recovering.